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Rebuilding a Foundation of Trust

We had a sad day for America this week. Rioters stormed the capital to disrupt the election. Everyone has a right to protest but it’s the way you protest that matters. At its heart, a good protest is about getting your voice heard while letting other people give their voice as well.(1)The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this. This wasn’t a protest, it was an attack on the infrastructure of democracy.

Democracy starts with having a good heated discussion. There are arguments and passion but that’s good because these things are important. Then we come to a vote and we all agree to follow that vote even if we disagree with that outcome. We hold this principle sacred and have faith in this process. This is like the faith that the dollar in our pocket is really worth a dollar in purchasing power. As a country, we all agreed to the fact that these electoral ballots have real power. These ballots are really just pieces of paper, and if the mob had been able to get to them, they could have easily destroyed them.(2)This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.

In order to be successful, you need to be able to trust other people. This is the basis of community and how we arose from hunter-gatherers. We need to trust that the people who grow our food aren’t selling us harmful food. Because we can’t trust each individual farmer, we have regulations at the FDA to do it for us.

Working with computers I think about trust a lot. This is what cybersecurity and hacking are all about—who do you trust and who is trying to abuse that trust. Ken Thompson, one of the pioneers of computing, discussed this in his 1984 lecture Reflections on Trusting Trust.(3)Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science. Thompson said that in software, you always need to trust the people that you’re buying software or getting software from. If you don’t trust some underlying foundation of what you’re building upon you can’t be sure that your software is secure.

Just as Thompson said, we need to be able to trust each other in order to trust the infrastructure that we’re building. We need to come together and reconfirm the basic facts and processes that run the government. Without that, we don’t have an election, we just have some pieces of paper.

Notes: NPR has a good article on the sanctity of the capitol. Stratechery wrote about how when we think about what should be moderated on the internet we need to separate discussions with each other vs. attacks on the infrastructure.

Footnotes

1 The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this.
2 This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.
3 Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science.
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Book Report: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

This is a book about trying to find your place in the world as you try to mimic someone else’s journey. Lulu Miller was always looking for a tried and true path through life. She had a hard time as a kid. Her father was a scientist who had very strong beliefs about his atheism and the beauty and value of science. Though he thought that there was nothing special or holy about other people, he said that you still had to pretend like there was and treat other people well.

Lulu became enamored with the story of David Starr Jordan, the original president of Stanford University. She tried to figure out how this nerdy taxonomist was able to conquer the world. He was a man who categorized things. He was the world expert on categorizing fish who somehow became a university president. Even when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his entire collection, he didn’t let that get him down. He just sewed the labels on to as many fish as he could find(1)Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off! and built an even greater collection.

This inner confidence is what made him so attractive. While Jordan claimed to be a humble professor, he had his portion of hubris. Thinking he knew better than other people about the world, he did some selfish things. Miller makes the case that he may have poisoned Mrs. Stanford, the matriarch of the University, and if not, he definitely covered it up.

Later in his life, this confidence turned evil. Jordan was an early proponent of eugenics and the theory of a master race. While we think of creating a master race as being something the Nazis invented, the United States built much of this theory. As a taxonomist he specialized in categorization and he thought that he could organize a better human race. Miller realizes that self-confidence has it’s own problems. She quotes psychologists who believe that building too much self-confidence in kids is over-rated and even harmful. She says, “I think of these psychologists as the quiet, ragtag troop of Cheerleaders for Low Self-Worth. Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!”

Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!

Lulu realizes that there is no best person. The whole point of evolution is that we’re always changing. It’s the variation that makes evolution worth—that makes it so robust. You can’t create a better human population by manually culling it and trying to get better results and sterilizing people that you think are inferior. You need to let nature and variation play out.

As Steven Pinker says in How the Mind Works, variation has a huge benefit. That’s why we have sexual reproduction.

From a germ’s point of view, you are a big yummy mound of cheesecake, there for the eating. Your body takes a different view, and has evolved a battery of defenses, from your skin to your immune system, to keep them out or do them in. An evolutionary arms race goes on between hosts and pathogens, though a better analogy might be an escalating contest between lockpickers and locksmiths. Germs are small, and they evolve diabolical tricks for infiltrating and hijacking the machinery of the cells, for skimming off its raw materials, and for passing themselves off as the body’s own tissues to escape the surveillance of the immune system. The body responds with better security systems, but the germs have a built-in advantage: there are more of them and they can breed millions of times faster, which makes them evolve faster. They can evolve substantially within the lifetime of a host. Whatever molecular locks the body has evolved, the pathogens can evolve keys to open them.

Now, if an organism is asexual, once the pathogens crack the safe of its body they also have cracked the safes of its children and siblings. Sexual reproduction is a way of changing the locks once a generation. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against the local germs. Its molecular locks have a different combination of pins, so the germs have to start evolving new keys from scratch. A malevolent pathogen is the one thing in the world that rewards change for change’s sake.

Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works.

It’s easy for us to look in the past and think that ideas about genetic selection are behind us, but let’s consider the banana. Did you realize that every banana you’ve eaten looks similar? That’s because they’re all the same variety: the Cavendish banana. This is a banana that’s quite firm easy to ship and relatively tasty. It has a strong case to be made as the world’s best banana from an economic perspective. However, a disease in Australia caused all of their banana trees to be destroyed.(2)Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.

We’re starting to cull our own genes. That Atlantic magazine recently published The Last Children of Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is the canary in the coal mine of genetic selection. Genetic testing has its benefits. Having a baby with a horrible genetic disease is definitely something that should be avoided. However, Down Syndrome is something else. People can live long and sweet lives with Down Syndrome. In a few generations, there won’t be any people with Down Syndrome left. It’s very much on the edge of what we should be allowed to select for, and I’m sure that things will only get more interesting and dicey.

Right now, if you have in vitro fertilization you can choose some of the characteristics of the child, like whether you want to select for a boy or a girl. I have a friend who is in this situation. For her first child, they chose the strongest embryo—the one most likely to survive. It’s hard to blame her there. But for the second child, there were five embryos in a freezer in the Midwest. How was she supposed to decide which embryo would be given the kiss of life? I told her this is a good time to just accept the power of G-d. To me, G-d created randomness and variation and we should let it do its thing. Science has given us an enormous number of benefits, like in vitro fertilization for people who can’t have kids, but we need to do our best to not squeeze all the randomness out of life.

Footnotes

1 Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off!
2 Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.
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Book Report: The Speculative Future of Ready Player Two

Imagine a world where nothing is real. A world where you plug yourself into a simulated environment and you can have everything you’ve ever wanted. Once you plug in, you’ll be able to eat the most fantastic foods, travel everywhere, and do everything you’ve ever wanted. This is the world of Ready Player Two.

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Making the Most of This Ugly Year

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— The opening line to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Ziba’s Holiday Gift 2009. Featuring Ugly.

I still have a holiday gift I got in December of 2009 from the design firm Ziba. They created six brochures on trends for 2010: me, we, happy, human, old, and … ugly. (1)Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.

Footnotes

1 Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.
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Why I Write

Someone recently asked me, “Why do you write this blog?” As I didn’t have an answer ready at hand, I figured I’d write it out on this blog.

I’ve always viewed blogging as my own personal publishing platform, putting out my best material to the world. This might come from my history as a magazine writer. I want to avoid writing for an imaginary audience who maybe isn’t as smart or curious as I’d hoped. So instead, it’s written it for me and for my friends. And by “friends” it’s everyone from the people I live with to the people who just like what I write online.

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Falling Back and Springing Forward

When we switch to and from Daylight Savings Time, I start to question reality. I realize that things that we take for granted, like what it means to be “5 o’clock” can be changed by fiat. It reminds me that things that I see as solid and unchangeable are just human constructions.

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How to Give a Great Birthday Present During Coronavirus

My wonderful mother-in-law was having a milestone birthday last month. In normal times we could have flown down to visit her, had a big party, and celebrated in style. But obviously, we can’t do that. So we needed to figure out a different way to celebrate her big birthday.

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Disney and the New Digital Theme Parks

The Virtual Travis Scott Concert in Fortnite

These days I’m sitting at home thinking about jetting off to Florida and entering the fantasy land of Disney World. We could walk around meeting the characters in Toy Story, travel to the past, or visit countries from around the world. Of course, these experiences are not the real thing but theme park adaptions of them. While we can’t have the real-world experiences of Disney World, there’s a new, and in some ways better, version of theme parks that I can experience at home.

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Seven Amazonian Secrets You Can Use (from an Amazon Insider)

When I was the Head of Banking at Amazon Web Services, I was able to peek behind the curtain and learn how Amazon really works. While there are some things Amazon keeps close to the chest, I was surprised that many of the most wonderful things about Amazon are available to the public.

This is a guide to the open secrets at Amazon that you’d hear during orientation or at a high-level customer meeting. Amazon makes these things public to build stronger relationships with customers, and since almost everyone is an Amazon customer, you can find them all online. But you’d only know about these things if you had a friend at Amazon. So I invite you, my friend, to examine some of my favorite secrets.

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The Best Vacation Ever. Thank God We Survived.

Here’s a recap of our ski trip to Breckenridge from 2018. There were some hiccups on the trip, like the way the Griswalds had some hiccups in the movie Vacation,(1)BTW, National Lampoon’s vacation was based on director John Hughes’s magazine article Vacation 58: If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever. but it was still the Best Vacation Ever.

When we got to the JetBlue Terminal at JFK I was feeling really good. I’d planned this awesome trip for my wife Abigail and two kids to go skiing with our friends in Breckenridge Colorado. We’d been planning this trip for months. I even found an affordable rate on the flight to Denver during Christmas week which was quite an accomplishment. Even though it landed at 2 in the morning, but we were going to be fine. That night we were staying at the Westin right next to the airport. As we sat down to eat our overpriced but surprisingly tasty cheeseburgers, my wife Abigail said, “What’s the confirmation number for tonight’s hotel?”

Footnotes

1 BTW, National Lampoon’s vacation was based on director John Hughes’s magazine article Vacation 58: If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.